Media favorite Dan Schnur, candidate for California Secretary of State, has a political problem. He’s not a registered member of any political party. And such independent candidates have a hard time winning – because voters who are members of parties are much more likely to vote than voters who, like Dan, are unaffiliated.
That problem is especially acute during primaries. Independents don’t show up for primaries because primaries are by definition party affairs, and so independents don’t have all that much to choose from. (Democrats, to their credit, included independents in California while Republicans more recently kept them out).
Now, in California we have a new system that eliminated primaries and replaced them with a two-round top-two system. All the candidates are on the ballot in the first round, and the top two vote getters in the first round advancing to the second round.
This new system was championed by independents (including Mr. Schnur) on the theory that it would empower independents. But it hasn’t empowered them so far – in part because they haven’t showed up in that first round, when they would have their choice of a full slate of candidates. In 2012, in the first test, turnout among independents was very low.
Why didn’t they show? It’s hard to know. But one challenge is a very basic problem of false labeling – an error repeated over and over by the media, state election officials and even foolish advocates of the top two. They keep calling the first-round of the top-two system a primary, even though it’s not a primary – it represents the very opposite of a primary. As I’ve explained before in this space, the first round is actually the general election, when candidates of all parties are on the ballot.
But independents know from long experience that primaries aren’t really for them. That may be one reason why they’re not showing up.
And Schnur needs independents to show up, and vote for him, for his campaign – which he has billed as a test of independent strength – to succeed.
There’s a win-win-win opportunity here, if people would start changing his behavior. First, Schnur should start making this point relentlessly – that the first round isn’t a primary, it’s the main course and people really need to show up (that would help his campaign and advance his point that the top two is valuable—a point on which he and I have debated and disagreed).
Second, Schnur’s friends in the media, and we are legion, can make the same point. Stop repeating the same dumb mistake and start labeling the first round as what it is: the first round of a general election. (The second round is a runoff). This would be the right thing to do for a profession that values truth, it might boost turnout, and it would help our friend Schnur.
And third, the state might fix the way it labels elections too.
If California won’t fix this fundamental error now – when the interests of truth, the media and Dan Schnur are so clearly in alignment — we never will.